Part of my pregame routine leading up to a college football or NFL broadcast is to venture down to the field an hour before kickoff. It's one thing to get a birds-eye view of players from the booth, but another to stand next to a player, and see how he looks and moves in pregame warmups.
Last week, I called the LSU-Mississippi State game for ESPN. Watching LSU from field level is like watching an NFL team in terms of their body types. Standing next to Leonard Fournette is like standing next to Adrian Peterson. Both look like they could run by –
or run over -- you. (Fournette did just that against Mississippi State, with three rushing touchdowns). Most of the LSU defensive backs look like Patrick Peterson. Most of the linebackers resemble Kevin Minter. It's not that LSU currently has players as talented as Peterson and Minter, but when it comes to sheer aesthetics, they all look great. Just to be clear, nobody at LSU, and maybe nobody in the NFL, is as talented as Peterson at the cornerback position. But, the Tigers have plenty of 6-foot-1, 200-pound defensive backs who can run like the wind.
Which is why another former LSU Tiger stands out as unique.
When you see Tyrann Mathieu up close, he doesn't look like a prototypical NFL -- or even LSU -- defensive back. He's certainly not the biggest guy, nor the fastest. But Mathieu is no doubt one of the best. If you just watched warmups, you wouldn't pick Mathieu out of a crowd. But when the game starts, you can't take your eyes off him. The Honey Badger is smart, instinctive, and ever present. I think that's one of the reasons why he was such a fan favorite at LSU, and has become one in Arizona.
Sure, Mathieu made mistakes in college. However, in talking with people involved with the LSU program, nobody has anything negative to say about him. They love him for the same reason Cardinal fans do. In fact, when both Peterson and Mathieu attended LSU's first game this season, the ovation for Mathieu was louder than it was for Peterson, who had just given $1 million dollars to the school. That's no disrespect to Pat. Even he knows Tyrann will always be more popular.
Yet Peterson remains Mathieu's biggest supporter. The Honey Badger probably wouldn't be a Cardinal without Peterson's endorsement a few years ago prior to the NFL draft, when Mathieu was selected by the Cards in the third round. There is no question that Peterson's faith in his friend has been rewarded. Mathieu has proven he belongs. Not just because of his on-the-field presence, but because of his professionalism. Even when Mathieu suffered a devastating knee injury two years ago (a far worse injury than many realize), Tyrann didn't compromise.
These are all reasons why Mathieu is an easy guy to root for. So, when you watch the Cardinals-Bears this weekend, spend some time watching No. 32. There are things he does at his size that bigger and faster guys in the NFL can't do. There's nothing like him in pro football.